Streaming Joyce


I often find myself wondering, as someone’s talking to me, what the inside of their head would look like if it was a room in a house. Some people have minds that are so light-filled and clean and orderly that I wish I could take up residence there. And yes, I’ll admit that other times, I wish I could get in there with a feather duster, a garbage can, and a nice set of file folders.

Which brings me to Joyce, who must have spent a lot of time wondering what was inside people’s heads too, because he spends a lot of time showing you what he’s discovered in there. My guess is that he wasn’t drawn to the room in a house thing.

I’m only at about page 100, but even this early on, it’s pretty clear that Joyce thought of the brain’s activity as a sort of streaming audio, one that doesn’t always come in clearly or in your own language, an audio that’s been transcribed by somebody who really, really hates punctuation.

Still, despite the weird transcript of the inside of the heads of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, Ulysses has a coherent (in fact beautiful) narrative voice, one that’s not so different from the voice of the narrator of the The Dead. And so the beginning of this book is quite engaging.  And when you emerge from the free fall you go into every time the narrative voice falls silent for a minute and you find yourself disconcertingly, maddeningly and often confusingly inside somebody’s head, you find the narrator is still there, and still sane.

If you allow yourself to relax, and decide that it’s not necessary to understand everything you’re getting from the insides of these heads, you see that Stephen Dadelus’s head is quite interesting.  For one thing, it’s crammed full of languages. One minute it’s Latin, another it’s French. There are lots of allusions to things you think you might have read sometime, but you have no idea when or what. And sex, sex is never far away, which is fine, because at least you know a little bit about that topic, though you have no idea where the hell the bit of poetry Dadelus is ruminating over comes from.  Still, if you’ve relaxed, it doesn’t matter.  The worst thing you can do, I think, is read a book like this with a concordance.  I don’t like my literature to resemble a quiz.  If a book is going to work for me, it pretty much has to work from within its own pages.

As for Bloom’s head — well it’s quite different from Stephen Dadelus’s.  For one thing, it’s easier to follow, and a lot more fun, because he tends to be interested in sex and food, two subjects I do think about myself.  He’s an interesting, arresting fellow, and I’m not unhappy to be in his head.

And there are indeed plenty of ill-bred moments, involving the sorts of material (snot, flautulence, to name two) that form the basis of many jokes in our house. It seems that inside the heads of grown men, the seven year old self is strong. I know there’s more to Joyce than what I’ve just said, something more grand and summing up, but I haven’t yet gotten to a point where I can do that.  I’ll be posting on some other subject next (maybe sex or food, come to think of it), and then when I get to the end of Ulysses, I’ll let you know what else that might be.  It might be April when I do that, but I’m guessing every single one of you can probably wait.

Not-Reading

I’m well into Ulysses (which means, I’ve started it and have yet to run shrieking from the room) and might even have some things to say about that in a day or so or more.  But I also have two other books underway and wanted to tell you about them because of one simple fact they have in common: I’m not actually reading either one of those, if by reading you mean holding a book in your hand and sitting down with a cup of tea and maybe a cookie, or just sitting on a train with the book on your lap which, if you don’t know by now, are the two ways I read.

The first book I’m not reading is The Aeneid. Although Virgil wasn’t an oral poet like Homer, (I looked that up to make sure I wasn’t just manufacturing that statement — here), it’s a poem that’s written in the oral tradition and is well suited to being read aloud. So I went over to audible.com and discovered that there’s an audiobook of the Fagles translation I got for Christmas and I listened to the sample, and on came this guy with one of those wonderful, delicious British voices that could make a reading of the California Code of Civil Procedure a thing of wonder and mystery and before I knew it I was a lifetime member of audible.com, and the head of delish Brit’s fan club. And yes, it’s true, when he starts talking I find I can barely breathe. I wish his name wasn’t Simon Callow, though, but if I think of him as Delish Brit, I’m okay.

So far, I’ve gotten up to the point where Aeneas makes it to Carthage, and Dido is about to fall in love with him. Poor Dido. The whole thing is quite wonderful. I listened to it yesterday while I was on a walk around our neighborhood, and although I would sometimes drift off into a weird reverie induced by the beautiful voice of Delish Brit, I believe I was really only absent from the story for a moment or two because I do know what happened and I have some coherent thoughts forming about the gods, and about the structure of the story. There are hours to go, and I’m so glad, because I don’t ever want to say goodbye to Mr. Delish Brit.

And then there’s DailyLit (or litbit, which makes it a sort of cousin of delishbrit, see paragraph above). I read about DailyLit today on the 9rules blog. You probably already know about litbit, because it seems tailor-made for bookish sorts, but basically, they slice up great books (the ones that aren’t under copyright anymore and so can be sliced up) and email them to you in tiny, daily packages. I considered doing that with Ulysses for about ten seconds — until I saw that it would take about 322 days before I finished. I think I can read (and skim) faster than that.

But I did see something I liked the look of, something that’s a perfect marriage of the efficient litbit form and the book itself, somthing that looked like too much fun to pass up — an early 20th century self-help book, Arnold Bennett’s How to Live on 24 Hours a Day (which is actually part of a larger Bennett project called, simply enough How to Live).

And so today, I received my first bit of Bennett on the question of how to live on 24 hours a day, which is actually this question: how do you get a really huge number of things done every day. And the answer? You’ve got to stop sleeping so damned much.

Turns out (no surprise to me, but maybe he found it surprising), lots of people think they can’t do that. And in 1925, when he wrote this book, the biggest problem people had with getting up early was this: “I couldn’t begin [the day] without some food, and servants.”

Ah. Servants. Now, food, I’d have guessed, but there aren’t any servants around at 5 a.m. was not on my list of the top ten reasons why I can’t get up early. Still, Arnold Bennett has the answer for this problem of how on earth we can get up early if there aren’t any servants around and it turns out to be a pretty good answer, and one I’m going to try to implement myself:

“Surely, my dear sir, in an age when an excellent spirit-lamp (including a saucepan) can be bought for less than a shilling, you are not going to allow your highest welfare to depend upon the precarious immediate co-operation of a fellow creature! Instruct the fellow creature [in my case, I suppose this would be my husband], whoever she may be, at night. Tell her to put a tray in a suitable position over night. On that tray two biscuits, a cup and saucer, a box of matches and a spirit-lamp; on the lamp, the saucepan; on the saucepan, the lid– but turned the wrong way up; on the reversed lid, the small teapot, containing a minute quantity of tea leaves. You will then have to strike a match–that is all.

“In three minutes the water boils, and you pour it into the teapot (which is already warm). In three more minutes the tea is infused. You can begin your day while drinking it. These details may seem trivial to the foolish, but to the thoughtful they will not seem trivial. The proper, wise balancing of one’s whole life may depend upon the feasibility of a cup of tea at an unusual hour.”

I’d like to repeat this and put it in bold italics because it strikes me as the most important thing I’ve heard yet this year: The proper, wise balancing of one’s whole life may depend upon the feasibility of a cup of tea at an unusual hour.

Okay, I’m with him. I do indeed believe that a lot of things depend on tea. (In your case, this might be another beverage, and I am perfectly fine with that.) And if tea could be arranged at, say 5 in the morning, I might, just might, drag myself out of bed and read some more of Ulysses. Especially if there’s a nice tray already set out and waiting for me with a biscuit or two on it. Who knows, with tea and a biscuit or two I might even finish Ulysses before 2008.

Would YOU Pay $192.50 For This Post?

I read this morning in the Sunday New York Times that people (make that students who have taken leave of their senses) will actually pay over one hundred dollars for a really badly written essay on, say, James Joyce’s great short story The Dead. Well, I’m writing something about The Dead this afternoon, so how about it?

Trouble is, I can’t remember exactly how you go about writing one of those essays, it’s been that long since I’ve done it. In fact, before I arrived at college, I’d never actually written an essay over two pages. Faced with The Iliad, I decided to look up every passage about Odysseus and string them together and write little transitional sentences between them until I got to five pages and, hopefully, that would be considered an essay.

It was not. I got a B and was terribly sad, having never actually received a grade that low in English, a subject I’d been told I was good at. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the professor’s comments on this, or the next ten B papers I wrote using exactly the same method, because I was so horrified that I couldn’t do better. One of my regrets in life, and something I’m teaching my children not to do, is that I didn’t listen to his efforts to help me.

Two years later, an even longer string of bemused B’s behind me (these are apparently English sentences, but I have no idea what you’re saying, I can’t possibly read another one of these and, anyway, who let YOU in?), a frustrated T.A. (I still remember him, his name was Drew Clark and he was a dear. I hope he got a terrific job at some beautiful small New England college and has tenure and is treated really well by everyone) said to me after I’d asked for a six year extension on my paper about Twelfth Night: it would help if you begin by asking yourself a question like, Why is there so much sadness in this comedy? The essay is the answer to your question. There is a lot more to it than that, and not all essays are about explicating an inquiry, but this was the prodding I needed to turn an essay into an act of critical thinking rather than continue to simply retype the great writing of people other than myself.

I eventually began to get better grades, although I never did figure out how to talk about books in seminars. Entire 90 minute periods would go by and all I’d accomplish was a page of doodled made-up names and backstories for my classmates (Sartre was sleeping with Garbo: he ignored her when they were in public)– or a complex series of marks intended to tabulate my fellow students’ idiocy or sexiness or how many times they’d worn that shirt to the seminar before.

With that bit of background, which should dissuade you from buying an essay from me, I’d like to begin by saying that I don’t actually have any questions to ask about The Dead. Instead, I just want to talk a little bit about how much Joyce’s story reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s work, and how surprised I was by that because I thought she didn’t like Joyce very much. Still, she apparently liked him enough to imitate him. Come to think of it, this might be one of those compare and contrast essays, the kind people do shell out good money for. (I wouldn’t try to plagiarize it, because BikeProf will surely catch you and you will be in a lot of trouble which wouldn’t be worth it because it’s unlikely to get you much more than a B- and it will also not be the required five pages, and you’re not allowed to do the meta-essay thing at the beginning like I did.)

I begin with Woolf, who wrote in her diary (in August, 1922 to be exact) that she liked the first 200 pages of Ulysses. She describe herself as “amused, stimulated, charmed.” But, not long after that, she declares herself “puzzled, bored, irritated, disillusioned.” In the end, she decided that Joyce’s masterpiece was “an illiterate, underbred book . . . of a self taught working man.” Take that modernist master, you are UNDERBRED. (I’m sorry that won’t work here in the U.S. of A., where everyone is underbred.)

The Dead, which Joyce wrote when he was still in his twenties and had not yet struck out in quite the wild modernist direction he’d go in Ulysses, is a story that reminded me very much of To the Lighthouse, so much so that I had to keep reminding myself I was reading the illiterate underbred Joyce, rather than the elegant, upper class Woolf. It’s true that the social milieu of The Dead is quite different from that you find in Woolf: Joyce’s people being Irish and mainly Catholic, a mixed lot of genteel and not quite; Woolf’s being much more socially and intellectually aristocratic. But at the heart of both The Dead and To the Lighthouse are parties and then nature — and a meditation on one of the essential mysteries of being human which is that as much as we wish to be connected, we are separate, or maybe not.

In To the Lighthouse, there is the beautiful moment with the beef en daube, which follows an extended meditation on the many ways in which Mrs. Ramsey’s dinner guests are not at all connected. But then something happens:

“Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed right. Just now (but this cannot last, she thought, dissociating herself from the moment while they were all talking about boots) just now she had reached security; she hovered like a hawk suspended; like a flag floated in an element of joy which filled every nerve of her body fully and sweetly, not noisily, solemnly rather, for it arose, she thought, looking at them all eating there, from husband and children and friends; all of which rising in this profound stillness (she was helping William Bankes to one very small piece more, and peered into the depths of the earthenware pot) seemed now for no special reason to stay there like a smoke, like a fume rising upwards, holding them safe together. Nothing need be said; nothing could be said. There it was, all round them. It partook, she felt, carefully helping Mr Bankes to a specially tender piece, of eternity; as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.”

“Yes,” she assured William Bankes, “there is plenty for everybody.”

Several pages later, Mrs. Ramsey, her daughter Prue, and her son Andrew all die in heartbreakingly casual asides. Time passes in that great second book of To The Lighthouse (the one so many people hate), and the forces of time (the wind, the rain, heat, small animals) begin to take apart Mrs. Ramsey’s world.

In The Dead, the party is seen mostly through the eyes of Gabriel, a professor, the favorite nephew of his two elderly, musical aunts who are the hostesses of the party. What I liked most about the party was how generous and amiable it is, just the party you’d expect would be given by two women who “though their life was modest they believed in eating well; the best of everything: diamond bone sirloins, three-shilling tea and the best bottled stout.” I don’t know what three-shilling tea is, but I liked the sound of it.

Despite how amiable the party is, Gabriel is seen as at odds with himself, uneasy with other people. As he prepares to give his toast, something he does every year at this party, Gabriel leans against the table, his fingers trembling (he’s a little nervous). “Meeting a row of upturned faces he raised his eyes to the chandelier. The piano was playing a waltz tune and he could hear the skirts sweeping against the drawing-room door. People, perhaps were standing in the snow on the quay outside, gazing up at the lighted windows and listening to the waltz music. The air was pure there. In the distance lay the park where the trees were weighted with snow. The Wellington Monument wore a gleaming cap of snow that flashed westward over the white field of Fifteen Acres. He began….” At this moment of connection, we see him moving away from the people in the room, something he’s been doing all night.

And then, later, as he readies himself to leave, Gabriel looks up the staircase and sees his wife. “She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. . . . He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.”

The rest of the story then goes on to explore the gulf between Gabriel and his wife — the ordinary enough distance between all people — that we have loved others, that we do not always want the same thing.

But, in the end, there is a vision of what unifies all of us. It’s not beef en daube, or civilization. It’s death.  The passage is so beautiful that I end with it. I’m not in college anymore, and I don’t have to say anything else, although I would like to say that if you compare and contrast James Joyce and Virginia Woolf you will discover that it’s quite likely, from how lovely the passages about eating and parties are, that both of them got to go to a lot of dinner parties where they actually had a pretty good time, and quite a few where they wished they could be outside, walking in the snow or looking out across the water at the lighthouse or, at least, writing about it.

And here is the end of The Dead, in case you’ve never read it:

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”